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On the Death of Yasser Arafat
by Ahmed Bouzid
November 11, 2004

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The death of President Yasser Arafat marks the end of an era and the closing of a chapter. President Arafat was more than the chief executive of the Palestinian government or the head of a nascent Palestinian state. He was the father of a long-suffering nation and the embodiment of the longest living struggle against dehumanizing occupation. But as much as the passing of President Arafat marks a momentous turning point, it is important to remember that the occupation of Palestinian land continues, as does the caging of the Palestinian people.

In the next few days, coverage of Arafat's passing and commentary on his legacy in the US media are going to be extensive. Anti-Palestinian groups, as always, have already sprung into action to ensure that the media constrains itself to the well-defined threads of the usual narrative: that Arafat was the main obstacle to peace, that he spurned a “generous offer” from Ehud Barak in Camp David 2000, that he fomented the second Intifada, that he has been in complete control of the violence since then. We will hear how he failed to deliver what he promised to his people and how he focused too much on the struggle and not enough on securing the ultimate prize of peace and freedom.

What is important for all of us who believe that the role of the US media is to enlighten and educate rather than act as a conveyor belt for one-dimensional, self-serving propaganda is to insist that the full picture and the complete context of Arafat's life and struggle be presented. It is important to remind everyone of the following two fundamental facts:

First, Yasser Arafat was the leader of a people struggling against brutal occupation. He was not the president of an oil-rich Sheikhdom or a peaceful oasis, but the head of a people engaged in a long and bitter struggle. His actions, faults and all, must be judged within that context of strife. His many failings should not be excused, but at the same time, no one should pretend that he was the head of a sovereign country, subject to the same expectations one should have of someone heading a “normal” state in a time of peace (not that any such expectations are ever held of the regimes of say Egypt or Saudi Arabia). Corruption, cronyism, and authoritarianism will sprout at the first opportunity. God knows they have flourished in all of the other Arab countries and elsewhere. In the context of occupation, they will not only sprout and take hold, but will prosper mightily. So let us make sure that such talk never distracts the conversation from the root cause of what fuels the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis -- the Israeli occupation.

Second, in the balance of power between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Israelis are militarily and economically more powerful than the Palestinians -- and more powerful by several orders of magnitude. It is at the very least intellectually dishonest to blame Yasir Arafat for his failures in leadership -- and he had many indeed -- without at the same time highlighting the basic reality that the Israeli leadership -- with far more resources and opportunities to make bold moves – not only failed to seriously engage the Palestinians but time and again went out of its way to obstruct progress towards peace. One only has to point the finger at the expanding settlements. Why did the number of settlers double between 1993 and 2000, the period when Israel was supposed to be withdrawing from the Occupied Territories?

And why has the settler population continued to expand even after the start of the current uprising in September of 2000. How can that circle be squared with the loud assertions from Israeli leaders that Israel wants to have peace with the Palestinians, if only it could find a true partner?

Arafat is now gone and with him the most convenient and handy excuse Ariel Sharon has used to avoid engaging the Palestinians. But rest assured: Sharon is more than ready to enter the next phase in his relentless fight against Palestinian statehood. Ariel Sharon insisted that Arafat could make peace if he wanted, but wouldn't. Whoever emerges as the next Palestinian president is likely to be dismissed by Sharon as someone who would make peace if he could, but simply can't. Palestinians must ensure that they don't offer Sharon yet another easy excuse to stall. And in the end, the burden will fall squarely on American shoulders: ensuring that both sides go back to square one -- the negotiating table.

Related Articles

* The Irony of Arafat by Sylvia Shihadeh and Robert Jensen
* Palestine Greater Than Arafat by Sam Bahour
* From Barak to the Road Map by Baruch Kimmerling

Ahmed Bouzid is the President of Palestine Media Watch (, and author of Framing The Struggle: Essays on the Middle East and the US Media (Dimensions, 2003). His essays can be read at:

Other Articles by Ahmed Bouzid

* Nothing New Under the Israeli Sun
* Crunch Time for Bush and Opportunity for Kerry
* Sharon's One Way Track
* Anticipating the Capture of Osama bin Laden